First Words

William: “Mommy, what do you think were the first words ever said?”

Mommy: “Oh, gosh, I don’t know. The first words God said in the Bible were ‘let there be light.’ Maybe that’s it.”

William: “So the first word was ‘let.'”


“Learning to let go should be learned before learning to get. Life should be touched, not strangled.”

–Ray Bradbury


Aaron likes to remind me that when we first met at a college orientation, I was wearing my hair in a ponytail wrapped in a ribbon printed with yellow rubber duckies. Twenty years later, I’m getting socks for Christmas from a colleague that say, “Less bitching. More feminism.” When I first had Clara, a friend with older children told me the only thing I could count on was change. Her words have stayed with me through more than just colic and teething and sleepless nights.

Against the odds, I have found delight in teaching English as a second language at 5:30 a.m. in our basement. I love to hear my students reach for words to describe a thought and then somehow capture it best when they’re in that space between both languages.

When I teach adults–the pharmacists, engineers, pregnant mothers, biology majors, we work on a prescribed lesson for 45 minutes. A week ago, Anna and I were discussing the lesson called “Hopeless Romantics.” The lesson told us that a “hopeless romantic” is a person who gets very upset when they learn a couple got divorced. Checking her vocabulary comprehension, I ask if she knows the word “divorce.” She says, “Yes, it’s when your love is broken,” and, I thought, yes, that’s probably it exactly.

Later that week, I worked with a terribly misanthropic but oddly charming eight-year-old. The lesson on nature instructed us to draw a sun and beautiful flower on our shared screen. I drew some lovely pink and purple petals on a green stem and asked if she could see my beautiful flower. She promptly clicked the black marker and shrilly reprimanded, “That is NOT a beautiful flower!”. She proceeded to scribble through my simple-minded daisy. I tried all the tricks, loading pictures of cute bunnies that were NOT cute and sweet puppies that were NOT sweet. Finally, when I said, “Bye, Linda, have a notgreat day!,” she cracked a smile.

Often at the end of these lessons, we sit smiling and waving  over our webcams for an awkward thirty to forty seconds. I want to be sure they know our time is up and I’m not leaving the lesson without reason, and they earnestly want to be sure there’s nothing left they need to do. We recite multiple times, “Bye! See you next time!” I’ll load a cartoon dog that barks, “Great job in English today!”. Sometimes it goes really well and a student might say, “I feel really warm in this class” or we sit and draw hearts with faces on our white screen, full and happy from a nice time and trying to smile our way into good-bye. Yesterday, Summy was repeating “thank you, my teacher” and this ongoing exchange of smiles, where there are never enough words for the feelings, led her to say, “Bye! Love you!.” And to this woman across the world I’ve known for less than an hour, I say, “Yes, love you, too!”

There’s a nice line in Colson Whitehead’s novel Nickel Boys when Elwood hears MLK give a speech. Elwood says when he heard that speech about the power of love and nonviolence, he felt “closer to himself.” As things change, we drift further or closer to where we thought we would be when we showed up to college orientation in a ponytail and hair ribbons. The “where do you see yourself in five years” question is a pervasive one. It seems a special human burden that our minds slip easily back to moments that have passed and into those we hope will come, that we neglect the ones we’re in right now. I’m finding that the more I let myself be where I am, the closer I get to who I want to be. The more I touch life rather than strangle it, the more life can breathe. I think of William and his crazy questions and that maybe the first word for any new cosmic act of creation, new day, or new moment is just “let.”

1 Comment

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One response to “First Words

  1. No words adequately describe the depth of my appreciation for your use of words to convey both your thoughts and something beyond them, but I come closest with “thank you.”

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